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Workers without paid leave lost $28 billion in wages during Covid-19

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Families, parents and caregivers call on Congress to include paid family and medical leave in the Build Back Better legislative package during an all-day vigil on November 2, 2021 in Washington, DC

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Missing a week of work due to illness, childcare or other obligations during Covid-19 costs workers without access to paid time off an average of $815 in wages, according to new research from the Urban Institute.

As a result, workers lost about $28 billion more in wages between March 2020 and February 2022 than the previous two years, according to the report by the nonprofit research organization with support from the Robert Wood Foundation. Johnson.

The United States is one of the few countries that does not have a national paid sick leave or paid family and medical leave policy. Instead, workers face a “patchwork” of benefits and programs through employers or at the federal, state and local level, according to the research. The Family and Medical Leave Act 1993 provides employees with unpaid leave provided they work for a covered employer and have valid reasons.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the gaps in paid leave coverage that many employees face.

Workers reported a 50% increase in absences from March 2020 to February 2022 due to illness, child care, family or personal responsibilities compared to the previous two years, according to the research, which examined the Current Population Survey from the US Census Bureau and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The unpaid weekly absence rate for all workers jumped 60% from March 2020 to February 2022.

The majority of absences — 81% — were due to a worker’s illness.

Yet less than half of all absences in the first two years of the pandemic were paid, whether due to illness, childcare or other family or personal obligations.

Childcare absences were the least likely to be compensated, with only about 24% of childcare absences compensated. In comparison, 34% of worker absences for family or personal reasons were paid, as well as 45% of worker sickness absences.

Low-income people, women and minorities hardest hit

Some workers have seen the biggest increases in unpaid absences during the pandemic.

Workers earning less than $25,000 a year had the highest unpaid absence rate of any group. They were also three times more likely to be absent from work without pay compared to households with an income of $100,000 or more.

“It was just this double whammy that hit low-income workers, where they were more likely to be sick and less likely to have paid time off to deal with their own illness,” said Chantel Boyens, senior policy associate at the Urban Institute.

Having a national paid sick leave policy could help reduce the spread of Covid and other illnesses, she said.

It is precisely this double whammy that has hit low-income workers.

Chantel Boyens

senior policy associate at the Urban Institute

“By not making this available to workers most likely to be sick and absent, we are missing an opportunity to both prevent the spread of Covid and protect workers’ wages,” Boyens said.

“At the same time, we are causing damage to the wider economy,” she said.

Women were 42% more likely than men to be absent without pay, particularly for reasons related to childcare or personal and family obligations. While 82% of childcare absences were taken by women, only 24% of them were paid. At the same time, women account for 65% of absences for personal and family reasons, of which 34% are compensated.

Meanwhile, 66% of Hispanic workers and 57% of black workers took time off without pay for absences due to illness, childcare, or family or personal obligations.

Where are the efforts to extend paid leave

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Federal policies were temporarily expanded to help workers who needed access to paid time off during the pandemic. But many workers were still being left behind, according to the research.

The Families First Coronavirus Act temporarily created paid sick, family and medical leave for reasons related to Covid-19. It was initially available from April to December 2020, then extended twice until December 2021.

The policy provided refundable tax credits to employers who provided paid time off to covered employees. But employers with more than 500 employees were excluded. There were also exemptions for employers with less than 50 employees and certain types of employees.

With policy extensions, the employer mandate was eliminated, making coverage voluntary.

Millions of workers were not covered by the temporary federal policy, the research found. Once he became a volunteer, it likely further reduced participation in the program.

Separately, Democrats had hoped to adopt a more permanent paid vacation policy with a broader set of social spending. But the four-week paid family and medical leave that passed the House failed to gain traction with the Senate.

Currently, 11 states and Washington, DC offer paid vacation programs, with four states adding plans since 2020. States with paid vacation include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, Maryland , Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington.

As state and federal policymakers consider expanding paid leave programs, previous research from the Urban Institute suggests certain features could help reduce access gaps and financial hardship. These options include broader worker coverage and eligibility, phased wage replacement, job protections, and greater worker awareness and education.